The so-called Ibiza affair was one of the best recent examples of how investigative journalism can be a force for good. A video emerged of leaders of the far right Freedom party, who were at the time in the Austrian government. Party leader Heinz-Christian Strache, who was also Austria’s vice chancellor was caught discussing giving government contracts with a Russian woman in return for positive press coverage.
The report was a sting, organised by journalists at the Süddeutsche Zeitung and Der Spiegel, As a result of their work, Strache was forced to stand down both as Vice Chancellor and as leader of the Freedom Party. Then Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz lost a vote of no-confidence in 2019, causing early elections. Among other things, the scandal led to a new wave of interest in the VengaBoys single “We’re going to Ibiza” (you can’t win them all).
You could make a great film out of this, couldn’t you? And Hinter den Schlagzeilen starts well with a meeting between Edward Snowden and journalists from the Süddeutsche. Snowden eloquently expresses the mistrustful tension between journalists and sources. The sources have no way of knowing whether the journalists will misrepresent them and the journalists themselves have no need for the sources once they have spilled their guts.
As the film continues, we follow Süddeutsche journalists Frederik Obermaier und Bastian Obermayer, first as they pursue a quite different case – the murder of the Maltese journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia. Caruana Galizia was a blogger, and apparently not an easy woman to get on with. Her work on the Panama papers had won her a lot of enemies in high places, so they were not short of suspects.
We suddenly move from Malta to Ibiza, though most of the action takes place in a newspaper office in Munich. There are lots of scenes of men in white shirts and jackets sitting in an office and so many shots of men sitting pensively at their computers that you wonder how much Dell computers have paid for product placement. At one stage there is a rush through the corridors to the editors’ office that just looks like it’s the thirteenth take ordered by the director.
I’m sure that many of the discussions in the film – what is the best formulation for this paragraph? How can we ensure that we can show this video with both sound and vision because if either is missing, we’ll be accused of faking it? – are really interesting to journalists. In the context of a film – which, remember is supposed to be at least in part entertainment – it can be a long journey.
Maybe it’s just me – I had exactly same problem with Spotlight, which won awards and stuff. Journalism may well be interesting to do (or not, journalist friends, please correct me), and especially in cases like Strache’s, the results of good journalism are fascinating. Yet watching it happen in real time can be just a little boring.
The weaknesses of Spotlight are repeated here. We have lots of earnest conversations between well dressed men about how they can ensure that their case sticks, lots of consultations with legal experts, but all at the expense of what it is that makes the case interesting. In the end, I’m not sure whether the film wouldn’t be more interesting if it was of an investigation made by a tabloid. The case may not be as watertight, but at least we’d get a little more human interest.
Ultimately, I think that I wasn’t allowed enough opportunity to gloat. Strache was and is a particularly dangerous human being, and his racist party should be kept as far from power as is humanly possible. But here it seemed that the key to doing this was the ability of journalists and their editor to formulate the right sentence. We can talk about the political weaknesses later. In the first line, it was just dramatically boring.
I know that we’re at a moment where good journalism is undervalued, and a strange alliance of postmodernists and Trumpists are questioning whether truth is really All That. In this sense, Hinter den Schlagzeilen is an important film and one to be supported. It’s just that sometimes, sometimes, maybe a director should make a slight attempt to please the audience. Is that too much to ask?